Home Photography Project: How to Make a Light Stencil


This is a guest post from Light Stalking's Light Painting group admin, Todd Edson. Check out Todd's photography site or follow him on Google + and Facebook.

This group exercise is going to show you how to create a light stencil box & stencil to use with your long exposure low light photography. The uses for a light stencil are wide and varied only by your imagination with a couple being permanent watermarking at the point of creation of an image or artistic creation of fantastical scenes.

List of items needed:

1. Medium to large cardboard box
2. Box cutter
3. Scissors
4. Yardstick or square ruler
5. Pen or writing utensil
6. Black tape
7. Silver or chrome tape
8. Glue
9. Printer
10. Handheld flash unit with manual trigger or test button

Step 1: Start with a cardboard box and lay it out so you have a large working surface like this –

Step 2: With a pen and ruler draw a line 12 inches or roughly 30.5 centimeters. Put a line or X mark at the ends and center of the line. From the center of the line at a right angle place a line or X mark 12 inches (30.5 cm) and then with the X as a center draw a line parallel to the first line that is long enough to fit the longest point of your flash head on. For instance the flash I’ll be using is 2.5 inches wide so I drew a line 1.25 inches (6.35 cm) on both sides of my X mark. Next draw a diagonal line matching the short line to the wide line so you have something looking roughly like this –

Notice the center drawing was off so I marked an X on it to draw over later so all parts match. You will want to draw out four of these to make the sides of your box. If you would like to make it easier just create one template and cut it out and then use it to trace out the remaining three sides.

Step 3: With your box cutter on a cutting safe surface carefully cut out the pattern so you have all four pieces. Set aside the remaining box for now and assemble the sides so they look like this –

Tape the edges together and fold them in to create the box shape and tape the remaining edge so you should have created something that looks kind of like this –

Step 4: Cut a small bit of cardboard that will fit the small end so your flash head fits loosely inside. There are better ways to measure this all out and cut it so this step isn’t needed but after all it is cardboard and not meant to last forever so some leeway in measuring and putting together the light box is OK. So snicker a little at my rough measuring and tape that small bit in place!

Step 5: The stencils we will be making are regular printer size 8.5” X 11” sheets of paper. Depending on how much fun you want to have with this you can make the box and stencils just about any size but this is small and portable and works well in most situations. So with that in mind on the wider end of the box you will need to make some small strips of cardboard so you can attach a printer sized stencil on the end and tape it down so no light leaks out of the edges.

Step 6: Grab a roll of black tape and tape up the outside of the box. The reason for this is to give the box a little more sturdiness and you want to use black colored tape so it doesn’t show up in your light painting shots. The standard uniform for a light painter is dark clothes for this same reason that you don’t want to show up in your light painting images in most cases. Make sure you tape up the ends and all edges well so that no light shows through. You can also make a handle to help carry the box and hold it while it’s in use. I also put tape flaps where the flash head fits so it’s as sealed from casting light out of the back. You should now have something looking like this:

Step 7: With a roll of silver or chrome tape you want to tape up the inside of the box so only the insides are reflective. This is to help ensure the light spreads out bright and even.

Step 8: Admire the cool box for a couple of minutes and pat yourself on the back for making something for your photography. You now know how to create a cheap reflector box for your handheld strobe and if you put a sheet of white paper or fabric over the wide end you have a homemade soft box for pocket change.

When you finish admiring your ingenuity it’s time to make the light stencils. On your computer you can surf the web for a stencil or make your own. I made the ones for this guide in Photoshop but you can make stencils in something like Paint or another software that’s free if you don’t have access to PS.
I went on the web and found a graphic of a stalking cat and downloaded it and modified it in PS to fit my uses. I then used the text tool and made a black on white image of the Light Stalking text with the stalking cat underneath it with the cat tail making the tail of the g. Next I simply used the Invert tool to make it a white on black image.

It’s VERY important that your stencil image is black on the parts that you don’t want to be seen in your light stencil images. Some modification of your stencil image may be needed but it’s a necessary step. Once you have something you can be happy with print out two copies on your printer.
You will want to make sure that there is no banding on your prints and that the black is uniform as you can get it. Banding occurs when you are low on ink or need to clean the print heads and can show up when you light paint with it. My printer was low on all inks when I printed these out as you can see by the banding on my images. This did show on my images but a little increasing the blacks in Lightroom fixed the problem mostly. If I were going to be using these stencils for light painting for more than this guide I would have changed out my printer inks!

Take the two prints and put them exactly together so the image matches up when you hold it to the light. Next tape or glue the sheets together and tape them to the large side of the light box so no light can escape around the edges. If you start doing a lot of light painting with stencils you can have the stencils laminated so they don’t wear out as quickly as just paper ones.
You can use any color for your stencils. I used white and gray since my printer was pretty much out of ink which shows on my examples and the pink instead of gray cat & the banding I had to correct in post! Colors do show up just fine on colored stencils although you might have to play around a bit to get it so you like it.

Step 9: Now it’s time for the fun part! Go outside or if it’s cold as the North Pole like it is in Minnesota where I’m at you can try this out inside where it’s warm. You do need somewhere where it’s fairly dark though so keep that in mind. Setup your camera on a tripod and start playing with your light stencil!

Join us in the Light Painting group on Light Stalking for more great projects and to share your own stencils!

Credits: Thanks to Trevor Williams for the two printer sheet stencil creation idea. Keep inspiring and light painting! The creation of the light box can be attributed to a lot of people with creative minds and the ingenuity to make something for themselves instead of buying it. The original stalking cat image which I modified for the example stencil (Light Stalking) was found on vinyl-decals.com. I’m not sure who the creating artist is. The other stencil is a crop circle drawing that can be found on a lot of sites.

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